Rules For Perfect Murders

Written by Peter Swanson

Review written by Ali Karim

Ali Karim was a Board Member of Bouchercon [The World Crime & Mystery Convention] and co-chaired programming for Bouchercon Raleigh, North Carolina in 2015. He is Assistant Editor of Shots eZine, British correspondent for The Rap Sheet and writes and reviews for many US magazines & Ezines.

Rules For Perfect Murders
Faber & Faber
RRP: £12.99
Released: March 5 2020

Peter Swanson’s sixth novel is a love letter to readers of crime fiction, exploring the grey area that separates fiction from reality. It is a literary novel [with a lowercase ‘L’], luring the reader into the mind of those obsessed by the allure of the library, the dark shadows of human nature and of the elegancy of words, constructed to tell a story.

It opens as meta-fiction but with an urgency and immediacy of a robust first-person voice. Bibliophile Malcolm ‘Mal’ Kershaw of the New England ‘Old Devils Bookstore’, finds himself the focus of attention from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The scrutiny comes in the shape of agent Gwen Mulvey, investigating a blogpost he wrote entitled ‘Eight Perfect Murders’ (the US title from HarperCollins’ imprint William Morrow).

It appears that a serial killer is using Kershaw’s writing as a primer, a template, a cookie-cutter for murder, each relating to classic novels from the crime fiction genre. Akin to Swanson’s previous work, the narrator has secrets that will unravel as the tale progresses, and the FBI closes in.

We have reference to Dame Agatha ChristiePatricia HighsmithJames M CainDonna TartIra LevinJohn D Macdonald among many others outside the scope of investigation. And Kershaw has a cat named after the renowned Rex Stout character to boot. A loner, he finds solace in books, especially now alone after the tragic death of his wife. As the narrative unfurls, classic books are referenced from the shelves of ‘Old Devils’. Mulvey and Kershaw explore the work that the killer maybe using as a map, to navigate these murders. Though it is not essential for the reader to have a familiarity with the novels and authors that Swanson peppers along the story; it does whet the appetite to re-read, or for younger readers to discover some great novels.

Rules for Perfect Murders is curiously reminiscent of Stephen King’s non-fiction work Danse Macabre, in-so-far as it acts as a guide from a writer well-versed in a genre that he clearly adores; in Swanson’s case it’s literary crime fiction. Beyond the eight novels that form the spine of the story, there are numerous references to contemporary, as well as other classics from the genre. It is a novel that should come with an attached notebook and pen, because it is indeed a primer, a reader’s guide to great work from the crime genre.

The pace is measured, thus allowing the hunt for ‘Charlie’ to unravel slowly. I laughed at the enthusiasm in the language Swanson deploys, an example being “Effing Awesome” to describe the Richard Stark debut ‘The Hunter’, written pseudonymously by the late Donald Westlake that introduced an ultra-violent series of novels that Stephen King also referenced in his horror novel The Dark Half

This short novel is deceptive for it has a high density due to the ideas and imagery contained between its covers. Readers of crime fiction will find it elegant in how it entertains, as it informs us of classic novels.

It is a narrative that celebrates the beauty of the solitary occupation of reading, as well as writing torn from the darkest perimeters of human nature and imagination.

In a word – extraordinary, with a capital E.

Editorial noteOur reviewer read this novel last year, and it sparked his own blogpost, related to Malcolm Kershaw’s online scribbling; one that too references a love of reading and writing from the literary crime fiction genre, and his own eight favourites.

Thankfully no one from the FBI [or Scotland Yard] knocked on his door

Launched simultaneously on 3rd March 2020 in the UK / Ireland by Faber and Faber and in the US & Canada by William Morrow; available for pre-order by both publishers – Miss at your peril.

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